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What's the big deal?
Sleepless In Seattle is a romantic comedy drama film released in 1993 and was directed and co-written by Nora Ephron. The film follows two people from opposite ends of the US - one is a widowed single father discussing his feelings on national radio and the other is a recently engaged journalist finding herself drawn to this stranger. The film stars Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Bill Pullman, Rob Reiner and Ross Malinger. The film is inspired by the 1957 film An Affair To Remember, which also features briefly in the film. Released to a positive response from critics, the film went on to earn two Academy Award nominations as well as taking a global total of $227 million, becoming the surprise hit of that year. Today, it's status as one of the best rom-coms is as strong as ever and it helped to establish Ephron as a major player when it comes to directing romantic comedies. Ephron, Hanks and Ryan would team up again for another romantic comedy, You've Got Mail, in 1998.
What's it about?
Chicago architect Sam Baldwin is bereft after his wife Maggie succumbs to cancer, leaving him alone to care for their young son Jonah. The two of them move to Seattle in an attempt to start a new life but they cannot escape their feelings of grief. After a year and a half, Jonah calls into a talk radio station on Christmas Eve and encourages his dad to talk to the host about his feelings and loneliness. Dubbed 'Sleepless In Seattle' due to his insomnia, Sam's conversation strikes a chord with a number of female listeners who write to him. One of those touched by Sam's story is Annie Reed, a journalist in Baltimore who has recently gotten engaged to her long-time partner Walter.
Annie is inspired to write to Sam and discusses meeting atop the Empire State Building in New York on Valentine's Day. However, the letter is discarded but Annie's editor Becky posts the letter instead. While Annie struggles with her feeling towards Walter (with whom she had doubts whether he is 'the one'), Sam is bombarded with letters from all over and largely ignores all of them. But Annie's letter reaches Jonah, who has a good feeling that she is worth replying to...
What's to like?
Rom-coms are unusually formulaic, even more so than the next Marvel film. There is always some catch or hook to make a couple's path to true love and its often quite unbelievable, which makes the thing feel rather silly. But Sleepless In Seattle is different, despite still sticking to that formula. Rather than just put two comic actors in hilarious situations, the film offers a thought-provoking look at the nature of grief and doesn't shy away from the emotional difficulties and heartbreak that accompanies the loss of a loved one. Hanks is excellent in a role that can't have been easy to get over with audiences, a man caught in an emotional whirlwind who nevertheless gets the help and support he needs. Sam is not your typical male character to lead a rom-com but he is a likable guy and Hanks' comic timing is well utilised.
By contrast, Ryan is in more comfortable territory here and in fact, she has the lion's share of screen time between the two of them. Crucially, she also isn't your typical rom-com stereotype - she has a man she's engaged to but feels unfulfilled, dreaming of whatever 'true love' is and missing the spark that should be there. For my money, this is one of her strongest performances as she plays well alongside her supporting cast - even Rosie O'Donnell - and maintains a level of scepticism about events that the audience will also have. Speaking of the support, the film is generous to a fault with good turns by Reiner, Pullman and David Hyde Pierce in a possible nod to his then-recent debut on the TV show Frasier which was set in Seattle. The film is exquisitely well made with a wonderfully classy soundtrack and a natural chemistry between the cast that helps you forget about the implausibility of the whole thing. And you know what? I didn't care about the film's faults because I was simply enjoying it too much.
- According to some of the cast members, Ephron was insistent that lines were delivered exactly as written although she wasn't against some improvisation. For instance, the scene were Sam and Greg (played by Victor Garber) feigned tears while discussing The Dirty Dozen was improvised on set.
- This was the second of three movies that Hanks and Ryan have made together so far, the first being Joe Vs The Volcano in 1990 and the third being You've Got Mail. Of the three, this is the most successful in terms of revenue and critical response. It's also the only one not distributed by Warner Bros.
- Ephron had a mission when she was making the movie: "Our dream was to make a movie about how movies screw up your brain about love, and then if we did a good job, we would become one of the movies that would screw up people's brains about love forever."
What's not to like?
It would be easy for me to say that I'm probably not in the film's target audience. Rom-coms are one of my least favourite genres but I can still enjoy and appreciate a good one, which Sleepless In Seattle most certainly is. While most rom-coms feel light and inconsequential, this film feels much more serious and heavyweight as a result of handling Sam and Jonah's grief. So some might not find the film as enjoyable as a more comedy, although this movie still has plenty of laughs to be had. But it's less about slapstick and more about dialogue and personally, I don't mind that - think of something utterly contemptible like The Accidental Husband and the difference is even more stark.
But my biggest issue was the overall premise which I couldn't quite get on board with. As someone who has also lost their wife to cancer far too soon, there is a sense that it isn't as simple moving on as the film depicts. For me, I still have issues deciding what my future holds - do I want another relationship and if so, what would it look like? Even though it's now four years since I lost my Better Half, I have gotten to where I am through talking to therapists and good friends over the years but the pain has dulled only slightly. I'm not decrying the film for being unrealistic because of course it is - but so was Notting Hill and I still enjoyed that. As rom-coms go, this is definitely one of the better ones and if you like these kinda films then it's almost required viewing.
Should I watch it?
Sleepless In Seattle is something of an oddity - it's an accomplished romantic comedy that is just as likely to make you cry as it is make you laugh. Thanks to an inspired screenplay and excellent casting, the film stands at the top of the rom-com pile. It isn't the laughter fest you may be expecting but I like the fact that despite the film's old-fashioned feel, it's brave enough to try something different. Love can hurt as well as heal and this film isn't afraid to show both.
Great For: hopeless romantics, reminding viewers how romantic films should be, chaining Meg Ryan to rom-coms for most of her career
Not So Great For: committed singletons, incels, male viewers
What else should I watch?
Perhaps the only other rom-com that stands atop the ever-expanding pile of rom-com pictures is Rob Reiner's timeless When Harry Met Sally which also featured Meg Ryan alongside Billy Crystal as two good friends in New York who question whether a man and a woman can ever be just friends. Together with Sleepless In Seattle, there aren't many more that offer anything different. Four Weddings And A Funeral is a very English examination of the nature of attraction and is far less syrupy than the anthology movie Love Actually. And if you wanted a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking feminist take on romantic comedies then you can't do much worse than Bridget Jones' Diary as Renee Zellweger fits into the role of the perpetual singleton like she was born for the part.
When I say that Meg Ryan and rom-coms are made for each other, I'm not kidding here. You've Got Mail paired her up with Tom Hanks again, City Of Angels saw her opposite Nicolas Cage (thankfully playing it more sombre than usual), Kate & Leopold then sees her alongside Hugh Jackman and French Kiss sees her in Paris with Kevin Kline. Unfortunately, she tends to struggle whenever she tries to escape her typecasting - take In The Cut as an example, a gritty and supposedly erotic crime drama that sees her targeted by a serial killer who make be the same cop investigating the murders - the very same guy she begins a torrid affair with. Directed by the talented Jane Campion (The Piano and The Power Of The Dog being among her best work), this film is an almost unintentionally funny film that Ryan cannot rescue. Ryan's last film, 2015's Ithaca, was also her directorial debut and was a fairly mediocre effort by all accounts. Hopefully, we get to see her return to form soon.
Nora Ephron, David S. Ward & Jeff Arch*
Release Date (UK)
24th September, 1993
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song, Best Original Screenplay
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